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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Reviewing, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 168
1. Albert Marrin’s A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery

I confess, until recently what I knew about John Brown was pretty much limited to a vague awareness of his foolhardy attack on Harper’s Ferry. Then, last summer, I read this review of James McBride’s historical novel about Brown, Good Lord Bird,  listened to it, thought it terrific, and  was very pleased when it won the National Book Award. And so, having Brown much more on my radar, when I first saw Albert Marrin’s nonfiction book A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery I was eager to read it. Having now done so I can say without reservations that it is excellent.

The excellently-titled A Volcano Beneath Snow is a book that is much more than a biography or history of one man. Rather, it is a book about slavery (both in history and in the United States), about politics, about war, about Lincoln, about religion, about history, about belief, and about terrorism. By placing Brown deeply within the context of his time, Marrin gives a unique and fascinating perspective on familiar and less familiar aspects of actions, people, and the ideas that led up to the Civil War. His portraits of Brown, Lincoln, and many other players are highly complicated, fascinating,  and thought-provoking. While the concepts in play are not always simple, Marrin writes about them clearly and elegantly, trusting in the intelligence of his young readers. This is a book that makes you think. Hard.

Highly recommended.


0 Comments on Albert Marrin’s A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery as of 4/13/2014 8:43:00 AM
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2. Deborah Wiles’ Revolution

Deborah Wiles’ Sixties Trilogy is set in the time of hers (and my) youth.  The first book, Countdown, is a vivid, compelling, and moving view of the Cuban Missile Crisis seen through the eyes of  eleven-year-old Franny and was, I thought, splendid causing me to wait on tenterhooks for the next one.  When I saw that the second book was coming out this year I was both elated and nervous. Could Wiles pull it off again?

Here’s my tweet after reading it:

 Mar 31 I spent most of the weekend reading ‘s Revolution and it is fabulous.

So, yes, Wiles pulled it off again. In spades.

A companion novel to Countdown, Revolution is set during the civil right’s movement’s Freedom Summer of 1964. Two smart young people are at the center of the novel, observing and wondering and questioning the vicious racism and segregation that has ruled their Mississippi community for so long. We meet our protagonist, white twelve-year-old Sunny as she and her slightly older step-brother take an illicit nighttime dip in the municipal pool. Relishing the cool water and thrill of doing something slightly dangerous, Sunny is mulling over the pleasures of the forthcoming lazy summer when she has an encounter that jerks her out of reverie and onto a path of profound knowledge and change. It is a path that Raymond also travels, a boy all too aware of what it means to be young and black in 1964 Greenville, and who wants to do something about it.

Greenwood has been filled with “invaders” as Sunny calls them, young civil rights activists who have come to do voter registration, set up Freedom Schools, and otherwise support local blacks in gaining their rights. Wiles does a superb job weaving in the many threads of life for white and black Greenwood citizens at this time, vividly and, sometimes brutally, evoking real life events. She also brings in wider pieces of the time, the Vietnam War, the Beatles, and Willie Mays among others.

Sunny and Raymond are beautifully drawn — highly believable young people of their time and place. There isn’t a false note.Those around them are nuanced too, from the young northern civil rights workers to those in both of the young people’s families who are responding in different believable ways to the changing events. And Wiles excelles at sensory detail, giving readers the sounds of the young people’s different neighborhoods, the feeling of summer heat, those fans and the occasional air conditioner, the shiny floors of the courthouse, and much more. Using present tense, she creates scenes of drama and action and others that are quiet and pensive, all moving and unforgettable.

Then there is the nonfiction material that, as in Countdown, is interspersed throughout. Photos, quotes, excerpts from documents and news articles, song lyrics, and more are vividly presented, deepening and making even more real  what is going on around Sunny and Raymond.  The back matter offers more along with a solid biography. But for those who want to actually hear and see more I encourage them to explore Wile’s pinterest page.

Revolution is one spectacular novel. I highly, highly recommend it.

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3. Margi Preus’s West of the Moon

Mixing fairy and folktale with harsh historical reality, Preus has created a gorgeous story of migration set in 19th century Norway. So many stories of immigrants to America focus on their lives when they arrive. Here is one about the old country inspired by something Preus read in a diary her great-great-grandmother wrote as she traveled to America.  Thirteen year-old narrator Asti is a complicated girl: brave, smart, difficult, angry, foolhardy, imaginative, and in the end, endearing. I dare you not to read her story and not care deeply about her. Asti and her younger sister Greta have been stuck working for their aunt and uncle on their hardscrabble farm after their father has gone off to America, promising to send for them when he has the money. The girls’ lives are harsh and miserable; the lack of any letters from their father makes it challenging to hold onto hope. But they do, Asti fiercely. But then, although it would seem to be impossible,  things get worse. Asti is sold to a truly horrific goat man and this remarkable tales takes off from there. Swirling in and out of Asti’s narrative of her harsh life with the goat man, her escape, and her efforts to get to America with her Greta are the stories she tells, ones of folk, of enchantment, and of magic. Beautifully considered and written, I can’t recommend this book enough.

0 Comments on Margi Preus’s West of the Moon as of 3/31/2014 5:11:00 AM
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4. Thoughts on Newbery: Patrick Ness’s CBAITS

Some of you may bristle (or already have) about this topic, but I think it is one to take very, very seriously. It is Patrick Ness‘s provocative point in his SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Book decision this week about what  he has termed CBAITs:

Crappy Books About Important Things; you know exactly what I’m talking about: books with either important subject matter or important formats that are so terrible-but-worthy they turn reading into medicine for young people.  People tend to be far too afraid to give these books bad reviews and they often go on to win prizes.

I think Patrick has a point, an important and enormously complicated one. First of all, what Patrick may consider a CBAIT may not be what someone else does. That is, our criteria may be different, our idea of what is good, our taste, and so forth. Which is why, presumably, some end up winning prizes. That is, enough people on a particular award jury may have the same sense of what is good even if it isn’t what others think. And so they are going to give an award to a book they sincerely think is good not crappy.

And that gets to the heart of Patrick’s issue: what do people consider to be a good book? Many indeed think a book is good if it takes on an Important Thing and will dismiss questions about the quality of sentence level writing that would be something I’d be paying attention to . While Patrick and I probably would agree that something with painfully poor sentence level writing is crappy there are some who might feel differently. Not to mention what I might consider overwrought writing might be something someone else would think is wonderful, and vice versa.

That said, I do think there is a tendency for those of us who review and/or participate in selecting best books, award books, and such to pay a lot of attention to books that deal with topics that we feel need to be more known. And sometimes we excuse weaknesses in such books because we think they are so important. Because they are so few and because we so badly want young people to take in the topics, to know about these Important Things.

I think this has special resonance when considering the Newbery award. While the criteria are clear that it is for literary merit not popularity or didactic intent, I suspect most  of us can look back at the books that have received the medal and find one we’d call a CBAIT.

Thank you, Patrick, for pointing out that metaphorically children’s book award emperors sometimes have no clothes.


9 Comments on Thoughts on Newbery: Patrick Ness’s CBAITS, last added: 3/31/2014
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5. Moving moment No. 9

Block that metaphor!stalk 500x375 Moving moment No. 9

share save 171 16 Moving moment No. 9

The post Moving moment No. 9 appeared first on The Horn Book.

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6. William Grill’s Shackleton’s Journey

I have always been fascinated by polar expeditions. I’ve viewed many documentaries, visited museums such as Oslo’s Fram Museum and Tromso’s Polar Museum, and read a lot. One story that has long enthralled me is that of Earnest Shackleton’s extraordinary 1914 expedition and successful attempt to get his whole crew to safety after their ship was consumed by the ice. This story has been told many times and many ways, say by Jennifer Armstrong in  Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World and by the American Museum of Natural History in their exhibit years ago where they created an awesome room with the James Caird (the small boat Shackleton used) itself featuring huge images of waves on every wall and sound effects. Now it is being told anew by William Grill in his gorgeous new book, Shackleton’s Journey.

This is a large, beautifully designed and produced book from Flying Eye Books, a small newish publisher doing absolutely terrific stuff. With a unique illustrative style, Grill balances small images with massive ones to evoke vividly Shackleton’s preparations, the early days of the expedition, the closing in of the ice on the Endurance, and their subsequent efforts to survive, and travel to safety. Grill’s text and images do a fabulous job communicating this incredible story. The large size of the book, the ample use of white to evoke the snow and ice of the region, and some jaw-dropping full-page images make this a book to look at over and over.

My one reservation is the lack of documentation.  There are several quotes, a glossary, and much provided to learn about Shackleton, his men, the ship, polar exploration, and so much more, but there are no citations. I would have dearly loved to have seen even a brief list of sources.

That said,  the book is absolutely spectacular and worthy of owning. Kids and adults are going to pour over it and, hopefully, want to then go learn more.

2 Comments on William Grill’s Shackleton’s Journey, last added: 3/6/2014
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7. Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s Parrots over Puerto Rico

One of my perpetual concerns is how we help children understand the complicated interrelated ways of wildlife and people, especially when it comes to endangered animals. My longtime experience in a school is that too often animals in places where lives are significantly different from those of my students are attended to at the expense of the people.  That is, I fear that they will inadvertently develop a negative view of the people native to an area where animals are in danger rather than develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of the situation. So what a delight to read Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s Parrots over Puerto Rico where the intertwined histories of animals and people are thoughtfully, intelligently, and beautifully presented.

To begin with there were the birds — striking green and blue parrots with the distinctive flight call, “Iguaca! Iguaca!”  There were evidently hundreds of thousands of them all over Puerto Rico when people started to arrive around 500 BCE.  Among them were the Taino people who hunted the parrots and kept them as pets. After Christopher Columbus’s “claiming” of the island for Spain in 1493 the island became full of Spanish settlers and a century later enslaved Africans were brought there to work the sugarcane. These new arrivals also brought new life with them: ships’ rats and honeybees  that managed to get to the parrots’ nesting holes and  attack their eggs.  Others needed timber and so the forests where the parrots lived were cut down.  And even as their homes were in peril, so were the birds themselves as people continued to hunt them and keep them as pets.

For the first half of the book, Roth and Trumbore do a splendid job providing young readers with a history of the island, intertwining the birds’ history with its human inhabitants along the way. In the second part they indicate the awareness by Puerto Ricans that the birds are almost gone and then their efforts to bring them back.  The book ends with a very informative afterward with photos as well as a timeline and a list of sources. Their research appears to be impeccable.

Of course, it must be said, that what brings this book to a level I might term “awesome”are Susan L. Roth’s remarkable paper-and-fabric collages. Elegantly designed, the book’s vertical orientation allows for her spectacular double page spreads throughout, increasing the sense of the birds’ habitats and movement as well as the way humans affect them.

I can’t say much more than that this is a fantastic book — I recommend it highly.

1 Comments on Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s Parrots over Puerto Rico, last added: 11/18/2013
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8. Goodreads Drama

I'm a little disappointed with the way some people portray themselves on Goodreads. I know that there is no GR 'police', but, we should at least be professional when we're posting reviews of books. It just doesn't look good to other reviewers or readers who really have an opinion about a book.

There have been many debacles, fiascos, tantrums and the like on that site and it makes me sad. Especially when a reader is taking it out on a writer or the writer can't handle that someone out there just didn't like their book. I know that it is an absolute impossibility that I will like everything I read. Reading is very subjective and there are many things that go into a book that sparks the endorphins and neurons in the brain that tell you that I like it. (of course, I making this completely up, but it sounds logical!)

Do I think this behavior undermines the work that we reviewers do on our blogs? Does it harm our relationship with our tenuous relationships with the publishers? I don't think so, because they know how we write and how we review books. They understand that we will not always like a book. Do they prefer we don't review those books, of course! But to be completely honest and trustworthy as a reviewer, we have to take the good with the bad. But that does not give one carte blanche to go all Rambo on a book or author. I know that a lot of reviewers, bloggers and media people have high standards when it comes to reviewing or just talking about a book.

Instead of going off on a book or writer, why not discuss what you didn't like about the book. Why not state what the problem was and what you think could be a way that an author could've handled that scene or plot device or whatever. Why attack the author for what she wrote, and what she got published. Said book went through betas, crit partners, agents, editors and copyeditors before the final copy was published. Obviously someone liked the book or some people. It is not our job to degrade anyone in the industry.

I don't know anything about sock puppets (although I've heard the term several times now), and find that when one person posts a bad review, it's like they all come out of the woodwork. Similar to the old psych 101 class where you learn that if you're in a group setting and there are a dozen donuts, until someone gets said donut, they will just sit there. Pack mentality. As long as I see someone else doing it, it must be okay. Well not necessarily.

I know that some of you are probably saying why is a third-rate blogger even addressing this. Because this third-rate blogger is disturbed and annoyed with what she has seen on Goodreads. This is a big playground and we need to all learn to play well together.

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9. Part II – Journey of a Book – setting up, hanging in there

The set up, which I thought would only take an hour, stretched to all morning. Coordinating the set up of an exhibition this size with so many ‘exhibitors’ had Michelle Richards, the Brisbane Central Library’s exhibition coordinator, running a million directions at once, advising as to ‘how [it was something new to a lot of us], finding stands and  suggesting modes of  display, and generally guiding us all through to ‘VOILA!’ – one  fascinating and very varied exhibition!

But there was more – not just the glass cases to set up, but hanging around to do the hanging!  this was not as straightforward as it sounds. We had to somehow attach our paintings to fine dangling wires and – here’s the worst part GET THEM TO SIT $#@*# STRAIGHT!

Click to view slideshow.

0 Comments on Part II – Journey of a Book – setting up, hanging in there as of 7/30/2012 3:12:00 AM
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10. Deciphering Reviews

A lot has been written about book reviewing this summer. Many writers have been concerned about whether reviews are positive or negative. A more important consideration is what do the things actually mean?

To work out what reviewers are really saying: Sarah Harrison's Guide to Literary Criticism, by way of Katie Davis.

0 Comments on Deciphering Reviews as of 9/3/2012 9:19:00 PM
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11. Stefan Bachmann’s THE PECULIAR and Laura Amy Schlitz’s SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS

Here is a richly realized alternate Victorian world of elegant upper-class homes and squalid faerie slums. Filled with healthy doses of suspense and action, this is a story young fantasy buffs are sure to enjoy. And while he is bound to be compared to Christopher Paolini, whose “Eragon” was also published while he was still in his teens, Bachmann has written an accomplished book that deserves to be considered on its own.


Schlitz skillfully manages multiple narratives as the story makes its complex way forward, creating scenes of warmth and humor along with those of drama and horror. Filled with lush language and delightful sensory details like the savored warmth of a velvet cloak, this marvelous story will keep readers absorbed throughout. While the intricate storytelling, captivating characters and evocative setting owe a great deal to Dickens, the book also feels very much in the tradition of such grand 20th-century writers as Joan Aiken and Elizabeth Goudge. Filled with heart-pounding and heart-rending moments, this delicious, glorious novel is the work of a master of children’s literature.

For the rest of my reviews of Stefan Bachmann’s The Peculiar and Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms in today’s New York Times please go here.

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12. Book in for the 2013 Women Writers Challenge!

Australian Women Writers ChallengeWhich of the many books on your to-read list will you pick up (or click on) next? If you’re as indecisive as me, it’s a struggle each time.

In 2013, I will have a mission to guide me. I’m signing up for the second annual Australian Women Writers Challenge, with a plan to read 27 books by Australian women writers, many of which have been gathering dust on my real and virtual bookshelves for years (the full list to come in a future post).

I found out about the event too late in 2012, but tracked the progress of other bloggers who joined in via Twitter and GoodReads with interest. So what exactly is this giant digital book club, how did it come to be, and how can you get involved? Founder ELIZABETH LHUEDE explains all …

1. What is the Australian Women Writers Challenge all about, and what inspired you to launch the campaign?

The Australian Women Writers Challenge is a reading and reviewing challenge organised by book bloggers. It asks people to sign up and read, or read and review, a number of books by Australian women throughout the year, and to discuss them on book blogs and social media. Through the challenge, we hope to draw attention to and overcome the problem of gender bias in the reviewing of books in Australia’s literary journals, and to support and promote books by Australian women.

Indirectly, the challenge was inspired by the VIDA count, an analysis of major book reviewing publications in North America and Europe. This count revealed that male authors were far more likely to have their books reviewed in influential international newspapers, magazines and literary journals than female authors.

An analysis of Australian literary pages by Bookseller + Publisher showed a similar bias (reprinted in Crikey in March 2012). 

From my own experience I know the problem isn’t just with male readers not reading books by women; it’s more entrenched than that: women, too, are guilty of gender bias in their reading. This is part of a much larger problem of devaluing work labelled as being by a woman. A 2012 study quoted recently by Tara Moss demonstrates that this bias exists independent of the actual quality and content of the work (see excerpt here).

To help solve this problem, the Australian Women Writers Challenge calls on readers to examine their reading habits and, if a bias against female authors exists, work to change it by reading – and reviewing – more books by Australian women. The quality of the work is there: it’s up to us to discover and celebrate it.

2. Is it just a coincidence that the challenge arrived on the scene around the same time as the Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing?

The challenge owes a lot to the people who created the Stella Prize. Kirsten Tranter, one of the Stella panelists, wrote about the VIDA statistics in early 2011, as did many others in the early part of that year (see a list here). Without the Stella Prize, the challenge wouldn’t have been the success it is.

3. How highly would you rate the influence of Miles Franklin on all of this, and why do you think she has become such a symbol for women writers in this country?

The Stella panelists chose Miles Franklin as a symbol, I believe, because no women were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2009 and 2011, despite the prize having been established at the bequest of a woman – one who, incidentally, chose to publish under a male pseudonym.

I can see the strategic reasons for adopting Franklin as a symbol, but I also think it’s a symptom of the problem. There are far more talented Australian female authors. There are also other literary prizes that have been going for years that don’t get anywhere near the publicity of the Miles Franklin Award, such as the Barbara Jefferis Award and The Kibble and Dobbie prizes. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of these awards before I started researching books to read for the challenge. Why is that, unless it has something to do with the fact that they, in varied ways, celebrate women?

4. A year on, do you feel the campaign has been a success?

The challenge has been a huge success. The Huffington Post Books blog published a wrap-up of recent releases of books by Australian women, Overland blog announced 2012 as The Year of Australian Women Writers, it has been mentioned on Radio National, and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life blog counted it among the 20 Greatest Moments for Women in 2012. I couldn’t have hoped for more.

5. How important has social media been to its reach?

Twitter especially has a major force in getting word out about the challenge, and has helped publicise the many reviews now linked to the blog (well over 1300). Recommendations via book bloggers and, to a lesser extent, Facebook have also been important. The real spikes in terms of hits on the blog, however, have come after mentions in traditional media.

6. You’ve done some survey research into AWW’s impact. Have you seen the results of that research yet?

A brief look at the results has revealed that the majority of respondents didn’t sign up for the challenge, but had heard about it; a majority of these also happened to read more books by Australian women this year. There are many other factors beside the challenge which have raised the profile of books by Australian women in 2012, so the challenge can’t take credit for this result, but it is a very encouraging trend.

Of the people who did sign up for the challenge, a majority read more books by Australian women than in previous years, and most reviewed more and read more broadly. A majority of respondents credited the challenge for their having a greater awareness of authors’ names, book titles and a sense of the breadth and diversity of genres being written by Australian women.

7. Do you have anything different planned for AWW in 2013?

In 2013, the challenge will remain basically the same, with the aim to read and review more books by Australian women. One change is that there will now be a ‘read only’ option for people who are reluctant (or too time poor) to review. This is a gamble – as it could easily diffuse the challenge’s goal. But it is my hope that people who sign up for this option will actively participate in the challenge.

How can they do that? By discussing books they’re reading on social media, using #aww2013 on Twitter, posting comments on the AWW Facebook page, discussing the books in the AWW GoodReads group, and – especially – by commenting on book bloggers’ reviews. Book bloggers have made a huge effort to read and review these books and I’m sure they appreciate people commenting.

8. Are the goals for the campaign the same, or have they grown with the movement?

The goal for the challenge remains to help overcome gender bias in reviewing, and also more generally to support and promote books by Australian women.

9. How can readers, authors, publishers, booksellers, the media and bloggers get involved?

The best way to get involved is to sign up to the challenge, to pledge to read and review books by Australian women in 2013, and to encourage others – friends, co-workers, family members, book group members, local librarians, school teachers and bookshop owners – to join as well. You can sign up here.

10. Can men participate (of course I know they can, but you never know, some might be too shy unless you extend them a really warm invitation!)?

Men are very welcome to participate – as they were in 2012. One male participant in the 2012 challenge was David Golding who recently wrote a wrap-up post on his participation which included a call for more men to sign up.

Another participant from 2012 is Sean Wright from Adventures of a Bookonaut blog. Sean has joined the AWW team and will be looking for ways to help get more male readers engaged in the challenge. (If you have any ideas, let him know!)

11. Who is/are your favourite Australian woman writer/s?

This is a tough question. I can honestly say my knowledge of books by Australian women is still too limited for me to have a favourite or favourites. This year I have discovered a wealth of genuine talent  – world-class authors I didn’t know existed this time last year – and I’m convinced there are many more to discover. My favourite genre is crime, particularly psychological suspense, and in those genres I’ve enjoyed the work of Wendy James, Rebecca James, Sylvia Johnson, Sara Foster, Caroline Overington, Angela Savage, Sulari Gentill, Nicole Watson, PM Newton and my friend Jaye Ford. But one of my goals this year was to read widely, which means I’ve read a lot of single books (46 so far) by different authors. The only authors I’ve repeated have been Gail Jones, Charlotte Wood and Margo Lanagan (two each). It’s not enough to go on to develop a favourite.

12. What were your top three reads by Australian women writers this year?

Only three? Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts tie for first, and a shared tie second includes Emily Maguire’s Fishing for Tigers and PM Newton’s The Old School, while Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper comes in third. These are all very different books but, in my view, compelling reading. (Sorry, that’s five, isn’t it?)

13. What are you planning to read next?

I’ve just finished Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, an emotionally devastating and imaginative speculative fiction novel, and before that was Annabel Smith’s Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, a very readable literary book about sibling rivalry. I have a huge stack books by Australian women to read, both recent releases and older titles, but I’m also keen to get back to my own writing which I’ve neglected this year while working on the challenge. Creating the new websites has required fulltime work for the past few months, and I need to get back to my own writing.

13. Could you tell us a little about your own writing? Has your work on the challenge pushed your own literary career along?

I started writing novels after I finished my PhD (in 1995) and I’ve had success in competitions with several romantic suspense novels and a fantasy title, but so far no acceptances from publishers. My latest story is a page-turning psychological suspense novel which draws on some hair-raising encounters I had working as an intern counsellor at a private hospital, as well my experience growing up with a schizophrenic father.

Earlier this year I attracted the attention of literary agent, author and former editor, Virginia Lloyd, who loved the story and agreed to represent me. With a great team now supporting the AWW challenge, I hope to get on with writing my second psychological suspense novel in 2013.

Have I been inspired by what I’ve read? Without a doubt. It has also been intimidating to see the depth, breadth and quality of the work that is out there – work that clearly doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s scary, in a way, to go back to my own writing now with this new ‘anxiety of influence’. I would love to write with the richly textured imaginative flair of Margo Lanagan, or the terrible emotion of Eva Hornung, or the compassionate humanity of Charlotte Wood. I would love to write crime with the sense of history and stylistic precision of PM Newton, or have the exquisite appreciation of nature and human heartbreak of Favel Parrett, or the contemporary feel and nuanced characters of Emily Maguire. I’d love to write suspense, mystery and history with the scope and readability of Kate Morton – and to have my books be half as popular with readers. I doubt I can do any of those things and I feel grief about that. I know the next step in such thinking would be “Why even try?” But what I can do is what I’ve always – sometimes hesitantly – tried to do: to write as skilfully and honestly as I’m able, informed by who I am and my unique experience of the world. If one day I get published and find readers who enjoy reading the stories I’ve created, great: that will be a dream come true. If not, at least I can be an active and appreciative reader of those writers who have a great deal more talent than me.


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13. Reading Critically-You Can Do It!

I was asked recently on the blog about how to read critically and I thought it was a great question! It's one I've felt lost with before.

When I first became a librarian and when I especially started committee work, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing and that there was no way I could read critically. So first off, get that idea out of your head because you can do it!

For anyone who is starting out as a reviewer or librarian, I recommend reading From Cover to Cover by Kathleen T. Horning.  This book is an invaluable resource when it comes to reviewing and is a great reference when you read critically. This is also most likely what most youth services librarians will tell you to start with and many committees recommend reading this book before you start your committee work because this resource is so valued in the profession.

I would also suggest taking a look at some children's literature textbooks or reader's advisory guides. The textbook that we used in my lit class was: Young Adult Literature: Exploration, Evaluation, and Appreciation by Katherine T. Bucher and KaaVonia M. Hinton. I love the genre checklists in this book and have used it for training at work and referenced it often.

Kelly at Stacked has a great cheat sheet to critical reviews that has lots of wonderful questions to ask as you read! She also has a great post about being critical and why critical reviews matter.

Now you get to start reading! There is a big difference between reading for pleasure and reading critically. When I read for pleasure, I can overlook plot holes, ignore small character development, etc. But when I'm reading critically, I'm paying attention to those things. Ask yourself lots of questions as you read such as:

-Does the plot make sense? Are there lots of plot holes? Does it flow smoothly? Does it leave you confused and leave plot points hanging? Or does the plot work well to make a cohesive story? (And series books, sequels and cliffhangers are OK-I try to look at does it wrap the main story of this book up but leave the reader wanting more?)

-Are the characters well developed? Are they stock characters with little development? How are the character voices? If it's written in multiple points of view, does each voice stand out? Do they sound like teenagers (or whatever age they are supposed to be) or do they sound like kids? Does their voice match their actions? 

-Is the setting well developed? This is especially important when worldbuilding is a big part of the story like in genre fiction, but setting is something to think about in every book you read. In genre fiction, you want to look at how the setting helps with the plot-does the historical setting add to the story? Was the historical setting accurate? Did the fantasy or science fiction world work or was it just set in a magical land and that didn't matter to the story?

-How is the pacing of the story? Does it drag? Do things wrap up too quickly? Is it a fast read or slow read? And neither one of those is good or bad-it's just different styles. For example, if it's a book built on suspense, does the pacing help keep the suspense up?

-How is the language? Is the writing choppy or flowy (and if so, is it on purpose and fit the book?) Is the writing literary? Did the story get bogged down in the writing or does it have a nice flow? 

-Does the story have authenticity? Sure, there are going to be magical moments when you stretch your belief, but you want to look at the story as a whole and if it rings true? Did you believe the characters, the setting, the worldbuilding? Did their actions seem real? Did their voices seem real? If there were some moments of magic or suspension of disbelief did it work with the story?

And a million other questions you'll think of as you read. As you read you want to look at what makes the book work or not work. What works well, what doesn't work well, what needed help, what was perfect.

You also want to look at the audience the book is for (especially if you're reviewing and considering audience appeal). Is it a picture book that talks down to its readers? Is it a middle grade novel that reads more like its written for second graders? If you're reviewing for your library, you also want to make note of who the audience would be-is this a book that you must add to every library collection or would it do well where angel books are still popular but isn't a necessary purchase for all libraries? Read reviews in Booklist and School Library Journal for examples of this-their reviews do a great job pointing out audience appeal.

The biggest thing you can do to read critically is to keep reading and reviewing. I know, I know, it sounds like cheap answer but it's true!! The more you read, the more your critical reading starts to grow. When you start looking at the books you read critically, you'll notice more about them and your critical reading will grow.

I would also suggest reading lots of reviews. This will give you a feel for how reviews are written and what to look for. And I love blogs, but I don't just mean read blogs. Read professional reviews. Read School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly-any professional review journals you can get your hands on. And I know many of them have locked up their reviews so you have to subscribe, but if you don't work in a library, you can always visit your local library and ask if you see their review journals. My library has them in our reference department and they are for library use only, but that doesn't mean a patron couldn't up and ask to read them in the library.

Most importantly, have fun! If you read critically all the time, you'll miss reading for fun. So take breaks, read something for you and that's for fun. And remember that you can do it and you have something valuable to say about each book you read.

3 Comments on Reading Critically-You Can Do It!, last added: 1/29/2013
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14. Trends – New bends in the path to publication. By J.R.Poulter

Some time last year, Erica Wagner, Publisher at Allen and Unwin, is reported as having said that there was a lot to be gained by having a text already illustrated [not that Allen & Unwin published picture books]. This is seemingly a change in direction.

Some writers/illustrators I know have recently signed contracts for ‘print ready’ books.  This is not self-publishing, but submission to a royalty paying publisher of a book that is ‘ready to go’ in publishing terms.

What constitutes a ‘print ready’ book?  It is a book that has been -

  • professionally edited,
  • proofread, has been
  • designed to industry standards,
  • professionally designed cover and,
  • if illustrated, has all images appropriately set.

This is a great way to go for authors who are able to pay illustrators and book designers up front. Most authors are not able to do this.  This then means all creators involved in a book project agreeing to royalty share and working between paid projects to collaborate on their book.

What have I gleaned about such ‘print ready’ deals? One company, smaller and reasonably new, offered a small advance and a good contract, by industry standards, with higher than regular royalty share for creators. An offer of help with promotion was also part of the deal. Another company, medium sized and established, offered no advance but better than average royalty shares for creators and help with promotion and marketing of the book.

How does this stack up against what is generally on offer now?

  • Small and middle range publishers, in general, do not offer advances.
  • Larger publishers offer advances depending on the book, depending on the author, and depending on the agent involved.
  • Smaller and middle range publishers often [there are exceptions] expect the author to do it all in relation to promotion, even requiring the submission of a marketing plan.
  • Larger publishers vary greatly as to how much promotion they will give a book.
  • Generally, publishers will submit copies of their publishing output for major awards, such as the CBCA, and to a selection of leading review outlets.

What’s the down side for author, illustrator, book designer, [often the illustrator], to go down the  ‘print ready’ publishing path?

  • It IS a lot of extra work for all creators involved to ensure the book is ‘professional’ standard even before it is submitted.
  • There is no money upfront.

Are the rewards worth the effort?

  • If you love collaborative work, it is a big plus.
  • Creators have much more project control to create the book they have collaboratively envisaged.
  • A quality product, ‘print ready’,  is a major bargaining point for creators/agents. ‘Print ready’ saves the publisher heaps!

The first company mentioned does small print runs, sells out their print runs, reprints and even sells out reprints and so it seems to be gradually snowballing.

It is too early to know in the second instance.  [I’ll keep you posted!]

My feeling is that, if Erica Wagner was sensing a ‘trend’ and if these companies make a success of it, we will see more such deals.  It’s something to think about!

To be launched end of June – “Toofs!” a collaboration between J.R. and Estelle A.Poulter an illustrators Monica Rondino and Andrea Pucci. More to come on what was a ‘print ready’ deal.

TOOFS by J.R.Poulter & Estelle A. Poulter, illustrated by Monica Rondino & Andrea Pucci

TOOFS by J.R.Poulter & Estelle A. Poulter, illustrated by Monica Rondino & Andrea Pucci

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15. Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven

A huge fan of Rita Willliams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, I was incredibly happy when it got a great deal of award-love and recognition. I mean, who could not be taken with those three sisters going off to spend the summer in California with the Black Panther mother they never knew? And who could not want to know what happened to them when they went home to Brooklyn?

Happily, we find out in the sequel,  P.S. Be Eleven. Taking off immediately after the girls return from California, their life in late 60s Brooklyn is all about changes. Delphine is starting sixth grade with a teacher she wasn’t expecting, Vonetta and Fern are becoming more independent, their beloved uncle Darnell is back from Vietnam and not doing well at all, Pa has a new girlfriend, and Big Ma is struggling with all of it.

And Delphine is struggling too– to make sense of her world, her family, her friends, and herself as she moves through this pivotal year. Her mother Cecile is on the other side of the continent, but her letters consistently and repeatedly remind Delphine to be eleven, to not grow up too soon, to be herself.

As in the first book, time and place are vividly evoked. I was particularly moved by the girls’ adoration of the Jackson Five, their efforts to make it to a concert…and what happened about that. And Williams-Garcia does the small epiphanies of youth with exquisite perfection. Say Delphine learning the hard truth about her beloved dictionary, the tiny rare moments alone with her father, her growing awareness of the painful aspects of the lives of the adults around her, aspects completely unrelated to her or her two sisters.

This won’t matter to young readers, but boy did reading this make me feel old! I was certain The Archie’s “Sugar Sugar” was older than the time of this book as I recalled having to listen to it ad nauseam during Driver’s Ed. But indeed I did that in 1969 and that was the year of that bubblegum hit. So I was older than Delphine in 1969.

But never mind about that — all that matters is that young readers today are going to delight when they re-encounter Delphine and cheer as she ponders difficult things around her, learns, enjoys, and is, as her mother urges, (even after she turns twelve): eleven.

6 Comments on Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven, last added: 5/15/2013
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16. My NYT review of Shirley Hughes’ Hero on a Bicycle

Historical fiction has an interesting place in the world of children’s literature. Regularly celebrated by adults with awards like the Newbery, these books nonetheless raise the question of whether the intended audience feels the same enthusiasm. What I’ve observed as a classroom teacher is that while not in the multitudes that flock to the goofy fun of Wimpy Kid or the wild fantasies of Percy Jackson, there are still plenty of young readers who can’t get enough of the past.

Those among them who find the excitement and anguish of World War II especially fascinating, along with others who enjoy a gripping wartime tale whatever the time period, are going to relish Shirley Hughes’s realistic adventure, “Hero on a Bicycle.” A much-lauded British creator of picture books like the Alfie series, the octogenarian Hughes was inspired to write this historical novel for older children by a family she met during a postwar visit to Italy.

Read the whole review here.

0 Comments on My NYT review of Shirley Hughes’ Hero on a Bicycle as of 5/11/2013 8:25:00 AM
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17. My NYT review of Shirley Hughes’s Hero on a Bicycle

Historical fiction has an interesting place in the world of children’s literature. Regularly celebrated by adults with awards like the Newbery, these books nonetheless raise the question of whether the intended audience feels the same enthusiasm. What I’ve observed as a classroom teacher is that while not in the multitudes that flock to the goofy fun of Wimpy Kid or the wild fantasies of Percy Jackson, there are still plenty of young readers who can’t get enough of the past.

Those among them who find the excitement and anguish of World War II especially fascinating, along with others who enjoy a gripping wartime tale whatever the time period, are going to relish Shirley Hughes’s realistic adventure, “Hero on a Bicycle.” A much-lauded British creator of picture books like the Alfie series, the octogenarian Hughes was inspired to write this historical novel for older children by a family she met during a postwar visit to Italy.

Read the whole review here.

0 Comments on My NYT review of Shirley Hughes’s Hero on a Bicycle as of 5/11/2013 9:31:00 AM
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18. Coming Soon from Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett, and Matthew Myers: Battle Bunny


I am a big fan of subversive books, say the ”recommended inappropriate books for kids” featured in Lane Smith’s Curious Pages.  That said, I also have observed that kids respond better to some of these more than others, an issue I explored years ago in a Horn Book article “Pets and Other Fishy Books.” And so, when I ran into Jon Scieszka a few months ago and he excitedly told me about the forthcoming Battle Bunny, I was intrigued but also wary — was this a book kids would get or would it be something more amusing for adults?  So when an advanced copy of the book showed up in the mail recently I took it to school to see what my students thought.

First of all, let me try to explain just what it is (and how tricky it was to read aloud). If you look at the cover above you can perhaps see that it appears to be a sweet book of the Golden Book sort, originally titled Birthday Bunny, that has been erased, scribbled on, and reworked by…someone. I began by showing the cover to the kids and we discussed what that original book was; some of them knew Golden Books, but all of them appreciated that it was meant to be one of those sweet little journey books they’d all read when very small.  Next we explored the scribbles — evidently someone named Alex had received the book from his grandmother for his birthday (there is an inscription on the inside front cover), wasn’t too happy, and decided to make it into a completely new story.  And so he thoroughly erased the original title and put his own in instead. As for the interior, he crossed-out text, added new words and art, and turns the story into something completely different.  

The first day I tried reading the book aloud on my own— alternating between the original text and Alex’s. The next day I invited one child to join me, reading Alex’s story and then had the kids take over completely — one reading Birthday Bunny and the other reading Battle Bunny.  They had a great time!  It may well be that the best way to take in the book is solo or with one other child, but I still think it was a blast to read this way. The group reacted, pointed out small things to one another, and just had a lot of fun.  Jon tells me they are planning on providing a copy of The Birthday Bunny online for kids to print out and rework just as Alex did.  Great idea!

So for those like me who go for this sort of thing (and not everyone does, I know),  The Battle Bunny is an excellent addition to the world of subversive books for children.

1 Comments on Coming Soon from Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett, and Matthew Myers: Battle Bunny, last added: 5/15/2013
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19. Coming Soon: Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

Unlike the somber tone of Appelt’s previous two novels (Keeper and The Underneath — I’m a fan of both),  The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp has a much lighter sensibility along with her signature folky and entertaining third person omniscient storyteller. This is the tale of a swamp in peril of being paved over by a couple of nefarious types who made me think of Carl Hiaasen’s, of a son and mother with a small cane sugar pie business threatened by those aforementioned meanies, some charming raccoon bros with quite an appreciation for art, snakes (one is mystical — a far relative perhaps to the one in The Underneath?), a tall tale-larger-than-life (truly) figure, and some quite outrageous hogs — just to get started. Over-the-top improbable, full of wild contrivances, absurd, and great fun to read indeed.  One I could definitely see reading aloud to my fourth graders come fall.

Hope the publisher plans to have some of those sugar cane pies around when the book comes out. I’m craving one of them something fierce!

1 Comments on Coming Soon: Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, last added: 6/5/2013
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20. Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away

Tom McNeal’s just out Far Far Away is getting some well-deserved buzz so I figured I would post my brief goodreads comments, written after reading it a few months back.

A very unique read, sort of spooky, definitely creepy as it goes on. With one notable exception, the characters are-not-quite Grimm characters, but nearly. The book is filled with Grimm tropes and you think the author is going to take you in somewhat predictable fairy-tale directions and he doesn’t. McNeal really knows how to make food sound really scrumptious and also various characters twinkly and fun until…they are not. It probably would have given me nightmares as a kid. That is, I was the sort of kid who always freaked out around clowns and there is a character in this book that reinforces just why they freaked me out. Can’t say more without spoilage.

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21. When Reviewers Collide

Leila Roy, of bookshelves of doom, has an interesting piece at the Kirkus site. In it she disagrees with Kirkus's own review of The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman. "Kirkus panned it as “skippable in the extreme”;" Leila says. "I haven’t been able to stop raving about it since reading it. Kirkus found it “unrealistic,” “ludicrous” and “snooze-inducing”; I found it chilling, suspenseful, shocking and raw."

This is an example of why I like to think of talking about books as "literary conversations" instead of "reviews." We tend to think of a review as something definitive. If you only read one review publication, that publication's reviewer provides you with your last word on any book you read about there. But, then, if you you read another publication, you may get a very different last word. That's the conversation.

The star system at places like Goodreads and Amazon, which are all averaged together so you see a 3-star book, 4-star, 5-star? No conversation there. A star is just a star. Even 5 stars are just 5 stars.

Of particular interest to me in this The Waking Dark conversation: I saw that book just a few hours ago at my library! I almost took it out. At the time, I wasn't particularly taken by what I considered to be a paranormal element. But now that I've overheard this conversation about The Waking Dark, I will reconsider the next time I see it.

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22. Defending Jacob: for those who like their mysteries with a twist or two or three

I reviewed Defending Jacob: A Novel in Sunday’s Oregonian. While I wish there had been less telling and more showing, I happily forgave it for the book’s surprising triple twist ending.

Read the whole review here.

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23. Dumping On Litblogs

When the review sections of newspapers began their decline a few years back, some of their advocates tried to save them by claiming that if print reviews disappeared, the world would be left with nothing but on-line reviews " written by someone who uses the moniker NovelGobbler or Biografiend." Newspaper reviews were "intellectual" while on-line review sites were "a childish free-for-all." (Michael Dirda quoted at Chasing Ray--see link in original post). Saving humanity from litblog reviews was a major reason for maintaining your local newspaper's book section.

Yeah, well, that ship has sailed now, hasn't it? Marketing these days is all about blog tours and social media. Of course, reviews are supposed to be about criticism, not marketing, but the publishing world only cares about them because they can be used to sell, sell, sell. And a blog tour and social media can be used for that, too, so print reviewers had a hard time getting a lot of support.

The links to the National Book Critics Circles' blog Critical Mass in my original post and in Chasing Ray now lead to a message saying you need to be invited to access them. However, Critical Mass does still exist and appears open to all. I couldn't find the posts Colleen Mondor and I linked to in its archive, though I did find a reference to the NBCC's Campaign to Save Book Reviewing. I don't know how long it went on or how it ended, if it ended.

April 28, 2007 Does Anyone Else Understand This?

The way this whole Save The Review Section, Save Western Civilization movement has turned into an anti-literary blog campaign is fascinating in a "Hey! Look at the five-legged frog!" sort of way. How are newspaper review sections and litblogs connected? I know plenty of people here in the carbon-based world (winky for you, Sheila) who get all their news from Internet sources, but I don't know a soul who gets all of his or her book information from the Internet.

Are the traditional book critics just looking for a dog to kick?

I've started visiting Critical Mass, "the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors." Yesteryday's post Flat Screen Differs From The Book goes on for a while about the difference between reading on a monitor and reading a book, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what bringing up computers has to do with the writer's passion for books, which she talks about later in the piece, and her desire to see them reviewed. Why bring up computers at all? What was the point?

I enjoy a newspaper book section, myself, and have good reason to want to save them. After all, so long as they exist, there's always the possibility one of my books will be reviewed in some of them. Therefore, I certainly hope the pro-review warriors have a better weapon in their arsenal than complaining about litblogs.

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24. Two things to do tonight

One: Ruta Sepetys will be speaking and signing her novel Between Shades of Gray tonight at Porter Square Books in Cambridge at 7:00PM.

Two: I am being interviewed by Emma Walton Hamilton tonight at 7:00PM EDT at the Children’s Book Hub. It’s a membership site, but you can listen for free by following this link. I’ll be talking about book reviewing, trends, and how I really feel about your blog.

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25. So What Did We Think Of The Unconventional Blog Tour?

I just finished reading all the posts included in the Unconventional Blog Tour. You remember the Unconventional Blog Tour. It was the blog tour about blogging. If you are a litblogger or thinking of becoming one or you are an author thinking of contacting blogs to try to arrange for reviews, you should consider at least skimming parts of the tour.

I see a recurring theme in the Unconventional Blog Tour--An attempt to set and maintain professional standards and to maintain independence of the publishing marketing machine. The professional standards issue is understandable. Anyone can put out a shingle and claim to be a blogger and, what's more, claim to be a literary blogger. There isn't any professional certification or licensing. For those of us who appreciate a rogue quality in life, a different voice and attitude, this is a good thing. But it also puts a lot of responsibility on readers to determine which bloggers favor straight opinion and which favor judgement, (see Objectivity and Transparency Online at Sophisticated Dorkiness), and to determine, moreover, how much professionalism we want in our blog reading. Readers really need to beware.

The attempt to maintain independence of the publishing marketing machine is a more interesting situation. It's interesting because back in the day, when lit blogging first started, it wasn't an issue. Blogs were totally independent of publishing. That started to change when the traditional publishing world, authors and publishing companies alike, saw that blogs could pull some of the marketing weight and moved in. Now publishing companies are trying to manage bloggers.  No wonder the FTC got involved a few years ago regarding whether or not bloggers are being compensated for reviews when they receive goods, such as books, from publishers (again, see Objectivity and Transparency Online).

Blogging started out as an independent act. Personally, I hope it stays that way. 

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